The Season of Advent challenges us to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make straight his paths.” The Sacrament of Penance is especially important as a way to bring order into our hearts and souls during these often bewildering times, when chaos seems to reign in the world around us.
Can God forgive my sins?
Yes! God can do anything, and He wants very much to show you His love and mercy. St. Paul teaches us, “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). The very reason God sent his only Son to live among us, to suffer and die for us and to rise from the dead was so that He could save us from sin and death. No matter what sins you have committed, and no matter how many times or for how many months or even years you have committed them, God can forgive you, and He wants to do so more than you can possibly imagine.
Why should I go to Confession?
In His kindness, God has not left us in the dark about how we are to have our sins forgiven. On the evening of the first Easter Sunday, Jesus Christ appeared to His apostles and said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And we read further in the Gospel according to John, “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (Jn 20:21-23). Jesus entrusted the power of His forgiveness to His first priests, the apostles, and in turn to all of the bishops and priests of the Church who would follow after them. In the Sacrament of Penance (or Reconciliation), known also as “confession”, priests share the gift of God’s forgiveness with those who are sorry for their sins and who are ready to confess those sins and live a new life.
Approaching a priest for confession can make a person kind of nervous. Priests also go to confession regularly, so they understand how you feel! But the Sacrament of Penance is about God’s love, His mercy, and the freedom that comes with knowing that your sins are forgiven. Many Catholics would undoubtedly agree that the most consoling words they ever hear in this life are those they hear near the end of their confessions, when the priest says, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
How do I go to Confession?
Whatever you do, please do go! The priest-confessor will be happy to give you any help you need in order to make a good confession and receive God’s forgiveness. Even if you have no idea what to do or say, the priest is there to help you. But here are some steps that will guide you through a typical confession.
Prepare: It is important to prepare well for your confession. Pray to the Holy Spirit to guide you, even with a prayer as simple as, “Come, Holy Spirit!” Spend some time examining your conscience, asking God to help you know your sins so that you can make a full confession. Pay special attention to more serious (“mortal”) sins, and try your best to remember all of those sins and how often you committed them (even if you need to estimate). You may choose to write down your sins, for the sake of helping your memory, but you do not need to do so. Please see the “examination of conscience”, below, to help guide you through this time of preparation.
Approach: This is the big step, actually approaching the priest for confession. Catholic parishes advertise their regular times for confession (often on Saturday afternoons), and usually offer confessions “by appointment.” Feel free also to approach a priest in-person to ask for confession. He will often be able to help you right away, or he’ll be happy to set up another time as soon as possible. During regular confession times, you’ll be entering a “confessional” or “reconciliation room” located in the church building and in most cases clearly marked. A green light or an open door are the typical signals that you are free to enter. You may choose to confess anonymously, from behind the screen, or sitting face-to-face with your confessor. The priest may greet you, or you can simply begin by saying, “Forgive me, Father, I have sinned. It has been (amount of time) since my last confession. These are my sins…”
Confess: The keys here are honesty and completeness. Be sure to confess all of your more serious (“mortal”) sins to the priest, telling him how often you have committed them and any circumstance that would help him understand the seriousness of the sin. To hold one of these sins back from your confessor is to prevent the forgiveness of any of them. It is sort of like how holding back a serious symptom or injury from your doctor would prevent him or her from being able to keep you healthy. If you honestly forget something, however, be sure that all of your sins are forgiven. Just mention your forgotten sin at your next confession. It is also helpful to confess your smaller (“venial”) sins, but you do not need give the number of these sins. There is no need to go into elaborate detail about your sins, and remember that the priest can always ask clarifying questions if needed.
Dialogue: After you confess your sins, your confessor may have some final questions or a word of advice for you. He will then suggest a penance, which you are called to offer to God as a token of reparation for the sins you have committed. If your penance is unclear to you, please ask the priest to clarify before accepting it. The priest will then invite you to make an Act of Contrition, expressing your sorrow to God for having sinned and your commitment to begin again as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Act of Contrition: “O my God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong, and failing to do good, I have sinned against You Whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In His name, my God, have mercy. Amen.”
Absolution and Penance: After you say your Act of Contrition, your confessor will then raise his hands and pray the Absolution over you, acting in the Person of Jesus Christ to forgive your sins. As the priest makes the Sign of the Cross over you, you should make the Sign of the Cross on yourself and conclude by saying, “Amen.” The priest will then dismiss you so that you can go and perform your penance.
“But now that you have been freed from sin…the benefit that you have leads to sanctification, and its end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 6:22-23)
Examination of Conscience
There are many fine examinations of conscience available online and elsewhere, but here is an examination based on the “great commandments”: love of God and love of neighbor.
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)
• Is there anything in my life I have prioritized above God?
• Have I deliberately missed Mass on any Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation, or otherwise failed to honor these days that are dedicated to the Lord?
• Have I received Holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin?
• Have I lied or withheld a mortal sin in a previous confession?
• Do I pray every day? Do I pray as much as I should?
• Have I turned away from the Catholic faith? Have I purposely entertained doubts about my faith in God or His Church?
• Have I engaged in superstition or the occult?
• Do I trust God? Have I ever doubted God, or led others to doubt Him? Have I been cynical about God or the Church?
• Have I used God’s name in vain? Have I governed my speech appropriately?
• Have I supported the mission of the Church with my time, talent, and treasure?
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)
• Have I been appropriately respectful of my parents and of all who hold positions of authority?
• Have I caused physical or emotional harm to any person through my words or actions?
• Have I had an abortion, or in any way encouraged or assisted another person in having an abortion?
• Have I failed to help and support my family, my parish, the poor, the sick, the lonely, the discouraged, the imprisoned when I could have done something to help?
• Have I violated another person’s right to a good name through gossip or detraction?
• Have I abused drugs or alcohol?
• Do I respect the dignity of human sexuality? Have I ever violated that dignity through purposeful thoughts, through my words, in my use of entertainment, or through impure actions with myself or with another person?
• Have I used contraception?
• Have I undergone sterilization or made use of immoral fertility practices?
• Have I used the Internet or any form of entertainment in an inappropriate way?
• Have I lied? Have I revealed information that should have been kept confidential?
• Have I stolen anything from another person or organization? Have I been honest in my work? Have I cheated on my taxes? Have I in any way taken or withheld what was rightfully someone else’s?
• Have I fully respected the dignity of marriage, whether my own or the marriages of others? Do I seek to do God’s will in my life, and to help others to do so?
• Have I been prideful? Have I envied the status, wealth, popularity, or possessions of others? Am I satisfied with the gifts God has given me?
• Have I led anyone else to sin by my words or example?
[Note: This article was first posted on December 2, 2020, and published in a slightly different form as a tract for the St. Paul Evangelization Institute.]
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